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Some folks got mad about what we didn't do

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Column by Ben Sheroan, editor

By Ben Sheroan

Sometimes it’s valuable to take down the wall and give our readers a peak at the thought process that goes into your daily newspaper.

Maybe you’ll still disagree, but at least it will be an informed opinion.

Every election season is accompanied by a certain amount of stress at the newspaper. With the energy and urgency invested by candidates and their supporters, it’s no surprise that some will lose perspective.

Occasionally, I think, there’s just a need to blame someone other than themselves.

Every published word and image are scrutinized for a hint of bias — even to the point of candidates counting words in stories as if that number could influence an election more than the value of their statements and ideas.

In that environment, an innocent mistake can be seen as a monumental component of an imaginary conspiracy.

And the criticism is not limited to what is published. In the recent primary season, the greatest controversy was about something that never made the paper.

Late on a Thursday night, the phone rang at home. Caller ID told me it was a co-worker.

It seems local police had arrested the spouse of a candidate for shoplifting. A couple people on staff had heard about the incident and through the online jail log, it had been confirmed.

Any retailer will tell you shoplifting is a serious problem. It doesn’t just cost the store. We all pay in terms of higher prices to offset losses.

But the law, the courts and, by inference, our society rank shoplifting as a low-level offense. It is classified as a misdemeanor.

Each week, the newspaper collects final verdicts from Hardin District Court on misdemeanor offenses and reports the outcomes in a published list. These are not treated as Page 1 headline items.

The point of content here: The identity of the suspect.

My immediate response — and one later affirmed and echoed by other leaders here — was this was not a story that we would pursue.

The person arrested was married to someone running for public office. The accused was not the candidate but a relative of the candidate.

While the actions of family members may reflect on your good name, the only person truly responsible is the individual who did the deed. Nothing indicates the candidate was a party to the alleged action.

To go a step further, we determined that this story would become a story only if the candidates themselves made it a story. If the spouse issued a statement or if the opposing candidate decided to use it as a weapon while campaigning.

Neither of those things happened.

That didn’t quiet the critics. Many of these folks supported a candidate who took the high road and did not get involved in mudslinging. Yet they resorted to anonymous, ugly postings online and cutting messages to relay their anger.

Very few bothered to ask why. They instead fanned the flames.

When one Louisville TV station chose to report the arrest, the criticism escalated.

News judgment is not an exact science. I have no criticism for the station’s decision. I only can tell you how it was viewed here and the decisions made based on that assessment. But the fact that it was reported in Louisville caused some to scream about favoritism or bias.

We had made a decision based upon an assessment of the situation, our standard practices and a sense of balance and fairness. Nothing changed because a TV station devoted 35 seconds to this arrest.

Values influenced by the actions of others have no value.

Often editors are accused of making decisions solely to “sell newspapers.” That is a worthy goal that our staff and certainly my bosses cherish. But it is not a sole or even a primary motivation.

A headline shouting “Can­didate’s spouse arrested” surely could have been a big seller..

In this case, we didn’t think that was the right thing to do.

In sharing the story here, I have been careful not to use names, mention the race or even hint at the gender of the person arrested. I offer this only as a lesson in difficulty of newsroom decision making.

Just as the person arrested is considered innocent until proven guilty, next time how about reserving judgment for folks who evaluate the news value.

Ben Sheroan is editor of The News-Enterprise. He can be reached at 270-505-1764 or bsheroan@thenewsenterprise.com.